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Entangled in our social networks

A popular new film and a tragic suicide remind the Monitor's language columnist how the power of communications technologies needs to be tempered with humane values.

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Let me start with a little of local enthusiasm: It's not every day that one goes to the cinema to see a major motion picture whose opening scenes were shot within a few hundred feet of where one is sitting.

OK, now that's out of the way.

"The Social Network" is a fictionalized account of the launch by Harvard students of the wildly successful Facebook website. The film opened the same week as many people were sobered by the tragic suicide of a Rutgers student. He was apparently victimized by another use of technology, by fellow students who were too clever by half but not at all wise.

These two threads together make for a vivid reminder of the need for humane values to temper technology.

Facebook is about pictures, to be sure, but also about words. Early in the movie, the main character strikes back at the girlfriend who has just dropped him. He says ungentlemanly things about her in his blog, and within what seems like seconds, all of undergraduate Greater Boston has read it. And all this, by the way, is before Facebook; this "news" travels over communications networks already in place.

Technology amplifies the power of language; humane values are needed to constrain the power of technology. And those values are expressed in words.

Somewhat later, when our hero (if that's the word) tries to make it up to the girlfriend he has badly mistreated, she quietly stands firm, using her own powers of language to refuse to engage with him.

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